What is Grief?

Grief is an inevitable part of the human experience. It is the natural phenomenon that follows loss, particularly when the person or thing lost was cared for deeply. Everyone experiences grief at some point in their lives, though not everyone experiences it the same way. It is as unique and individualized as the relationship that brought it about. Grief can come from the loss of a loved one, a job, a marriage, a pet, or even something like the loss of identity. It can even occur before the loss actually happens, something called preparatory grief. Whatever causes it, and however it is experienced, we will all have moments of grieving in our lives. Grief is as natural and healthy a feeling as love or joy. One important aspect of grief is that it affects the entirety of the individual experiencing it. It is not limited to emotional effects. Rather, grief is an emotional, physical, cognitive, behavioral, and spiritual experience.

Is There a “Right” Way to Grieve?”

This universal nature of grief can sometimes make it feel as if there must be a “normal” or “correct” way to grieve. The popularization and often misunderstanding of Kubler-Ross’s 5-stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) can make grief feel like something that happens to us, completely out of our control. The truth is much different. The grieving process is incredibly complex and unique to the individual and their relationship with the person or thing that was lost. There are, however, healthy and unhealthy ways to cope with the sadness, frustration, and emotional pain that can come with grief. Often the unhealthy ways are no different than unhealthy ways people can use to cope with other stressors in their life. Substance abuse, self-isolation, and over or under-eating are some common examples. Finding yourself using more unhealthy coping mechanisms than healthy ones may signify that seeking professional therapy and counseling could help in the grieving process.

Stages? Tasks? Moving on?

So, what about those famous five stages of grief? Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance? Does everyone experience them? Are they always in that order? Where do they even come from? Elizabeth Kubler-Ross first developed the concept of the five stages of grief in the 1960s to describe what she saw when working with terminally ill patients coming to terms with their illness. Only later did the model begin to be applied to those patients’ loved ones, and then the grief process in general. While many people experiencing grief relate to the five stages, evidence gathered in the decades since Kubler-Ross initially published the idea suggests that grief is much more complex and varied an experience than navigating through a predictable and linear set of emotional states. Rather, the experience of grief is as unique as the individual experiencing it. People may oscillate between the stages, skip around and shuffle up the order, or even skip over some of the stages entirely.

One alternative way to think about grief was proposed by William Warden and involves four different “tasks ” of grief

  1. The first task is to accept the reality of the loss. Without acceptance, we may find ourselves stuck, unable to move forward and continue our own lives. 
  2. The second task is to experience the pain of grief. This pain is natural. Avoidance of that pain and discomfort stops us from processing our feelings and can lead us to use unhealthy coping mechanisms. This does not mean, however, that there is any single way of processing the emotions of grief, each individual can experience that pain in different ways. The key is to not avoid it. 
  3. This leads to the third task: adjusting to the new environment that is missing the person, relationship, or thing that is lost. Individuals in grief often get stuck believing that this readjustment is a betrayal to their loved ones. Many people can become stuck because of this, unable to continue forward for fear of being disloyal. 
  4. Finally, the last task is to find a way to remain connected with who or what was lost while moving in the direction of growth. While intimately related to the third task, this final task is specifically interested in flipping the traditional notion of “moving on” on its head.The idea of “moving on” or “letting go” implies not only the loss of the deceased person but the loss of the relationship with that person as well. Contrary to these old adages, the fourth task allows us to continue that relationship with what was lost. For example, the joy, warmth, and wisdom you may have received from a parent can continue to be a part of who you are, how you grow, and how you live in the world. The death of that parent does not take those memories and experiences from you. That is not to say this task is any easier than moving on or letting go. Instead, many people may find more comfort in the short term and the ability for growth in the long term when finding a way to continue to have a relationship with who or what was lost.

What is “Complicated Grief?”

Complicated grief is a term used in psychology to describe when an individual is experiencing intense grief for an extended period of time, usually 6-12 months after the loss. Additionally, those with complicated grief often have trouble with work or school and find it difficult to maintain relationships. In a sense, those with complex grief experience the same things as those experiencing normal grief, except those symptoms linger for far longer and can even begin to get worse. Those who are at a greater risk for developing complicated grief include those who are grieving a violent, untimely, or unexpected death as well as those who feel guilty about the loss. Attachment styles may also influence the likelihood of developing complicated grief. 

When to Seek Professional Help

Because of the universality and natural character of grief, seeking professional help or treatment may seem like odd things to do. In fact, some studies have shown that unsolicited help for the natural process of grief and bereavement is not always helpful and sometimes can even disrupt the natural process of grieving. With that said, however, if an individual believes that they need additional support or think they may be at risk of getting “stuck” and developing complicated grief, professional help has been found to be an effective way of finding the support they need. Whether or not to seek treatment for grief can be a difficult decision to make and is ultimately up to you and your loved ones.

For more information call Matone Counseling & Testing at 704-503-8196, or register for an online consultation 

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